July 12, 2008

back to square one, or at least to chapter one.......

Apologies for the delay on getting my first post up – temporarily moved to the west coast on my way to Japan and had to buy a brand new set of Capital (left my older editions back in Brooklyn). Its nice to re-read _Capital_ without my previous notes clouding my vision – I find that I am reading the chapters in a whole new light and with new questions emerging…….

As with Andy and Adam, I tended to focus on the ‘function’ of use-value (and useful-labor) in this first chapter, since this has continually been interpreted as Marx positing some type of embodied/humanist ontology that becomes determined or displaced by capital/exchange value– think, for instance, of Part III of Lukacs’ “Reification and Class Consciousnsess” essay (where finance capital M-M’ stands in for capital as a whole, and the proletariat’s proximity to manual labor is the standpoint in which the totality [history] can be consciously grasped in the temporal present) or more recently, Chakrabarty’s division between History I (Marx’s European-derived universal theorization analogous [?] to his own conceptualization of capital’s value-form) and History II (paradoxically the Heideggerian ‘life-world’ as a cultural existence that remains in its own temporal register within capitalism). In both cases use-value, and useful-labor, is rendered as a natural and/or organic form that somehow co-constitutes capital but is also outside of it (logically and historically) – as Spivak argues in the article Andy pointed to below.

With this common (mis?)interpretation – whereby use-value becomes the analytical standpoint to critique abstract exchange value – or as Adam mentioned – the ‘unmarked’ term – use-value tends to fall from its own position within the value-form (the dialectic between exchange and use value). But there is a real problem here concerning how to understand its function in Marx’s argument – is it possible to see it operating on two different levels of analysis: one within the multiplicity of capital’s own logic, and the other, the history of capital as a specific social formation? To begin with the former…..

I think Spivak’s point about use-value being both within and outside of capital’s logic hits the mark – with all the theoretical slight-of-hands that are necessary to make it appear as both, depending on the specific context. In this first chapter, use-value occupies a ‘place’ within the internal-logic of capital itself – that capital’s value form is the dialectic between both use-value and exchange value (rather than as a position outside of it). For example, when he writes at the very beginning of the chapter:

“nothing can be a value without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value. (131)”

Or later in the introduction to the chapter “Process of Exchange”:

“One the other hand, they [commodities] must stand the test as use-values before they can be realized as values. For the labour expended on them only counts in so far as it is expended in a from which is useful for others. However, only the act of exchange can prove whether that labour is useful for others, and its product consequently capable of satisfying needs of other. (179-180)”

In this last quote, both use-value (realized in consumption) and exchange value (realized in the process of exchange) are the necessary conditions of possibility for each other. If we extend this to his discussion of money and the circulation of commodities (chapter three), it is the ceaseless process of commodities “falling out” from M-C-M’ (capital’s equation), the necessary effect for capital to appear as “sweating” money from every pore (the appearance of value adding value to itself).

But even at this level of analysis, an ‘outside’ appears to disturb such a coherent and self-referential logic – particularly concerning the relationship between, on one level, the world of commodities (i.e., that they ‘speak’ their own language – one ‘behind the backs’ of the producers themselves) where ‘value’ constitutes a plane of sociality (though constituted by social-domination) and on the other, some reference to a sociality that consumes use-values (that allows for commodities to mediate the ever-expanding and ever-intensifying process of M-C-M’). Although I find suspect arguments such as Chakrabarty’s, whereby use-value stands in for a presupposed transhistorical cultural subject, I feel that there is a real lacunae regarding use-value, useful-labor, and necessary consumption.

The issue becomes muddier if we have to establish the historical grounds in which this logic is already self-constituted and reproducing (where the commodity is the universal structuring form – e.g. production for exchange rather than immediate use). Andy and Adam have quoted from various places that I think express a vacillation between claims of a transhistorical human practice (labor) and a historically specific form of sociality (“labor”). I don’t necessarily agree that we can assume that use-value was the form/product of human-labour that predated capital (i.e., where past/present becomes homogolous to use-value/exchange respectively). And yet, Marx does seem to be making an argument where use-value was the predominant form – that even with feudalism it was the direct (coerced) extraction of use-value from serfs, etc – processes that were not mediated by abstract, quantified ‘value’ and a social form where the social relationships were consciously grasped by both dominated and dominating. I don’t know how far we can get in thinking-through this issue if we remain within the terms of the classic ‘transition’ debates (Sweezy, Dobb, Hilton, et al), which all seemed to return to their analytical starting points.

But in another register, one concerning history and value, forms of thought, social abstraction and the forces/relations of production, how do understand Marx’s discussion of Aristotle’s failure to ‘discover’ value?

“The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour because and in so far as they are human labour in general, could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion. This however becomes possible only in a society where the commodity-form is the universal form of the product of labour; hence the dominant social relation is the relation between men as possessors of commodities. (152)”

The question becomes, while formal equality between individuals > is based on commodity production > which is the pre-condition for labor to be known as the source of value (Ricardo and Marx), then, what was the “cause” of this formal equality to emerge in the first place – one of consciousness or forces of production? Is this the historical origin of capitalism, and is this primarily an epistemological question or one concerning the forces/relations of production dialectic? In this equation it seems to say: labor as the source of value depends on > equality which depends on > specific mode of production > which is the result of a historical transformation of the relations/means of production.

On the one hand, there is the implication that man (of course) makes history, but then another implication that the consciousness that is required for this action is imparted by a specific socio-historical development in the means/relations of production. I think it is this axis, between social formation and historical change, between consciousness/praxis and the specificity of the means/relations of production, which lends itself to so many differing interpretations of Marx’s thought – and this in a section merely discussing the commodity!

I’m hoping we can discuss these types of question as we move farther ahead into volume one~

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